There’s not a single moment of Choi Dong-hoon’s “The Thieves” that stays still. Endlessly busy despite a robust 136-minute runtime, Korea’s highest grossing film in history should be more than familiar to western audiences. It’s a heist picture, one with a wide ensemble of moving parts which compliment each other as each heist is carried out with point men, lookouts, and movie-world gizmos, and like even the thinnest of these pictures, “The Thieves” is less interested in the characters than it is the elaborate stunts and gimmicks.
The film follows a group of criminals who regularly boost artifacts from the rich, and the opening is a standout. A beautiful young woman (Gianna Jun) introduces her mother (Kim Hae-suk) to her boyfriend of five months, but when they leave the room, the daughter strips down to a bodysuit and reveals herself as a building-hopping daredevil. As she ziplines from building to building, a breathtaking stunt, her fake mother proceeds to trouble this would-be gentleman with nosy questions, the better to make him squirm and distract him from the job. Executed nearly to perfection, all parties eventually scramble to get away with a major reward right before the opening credits. Like this heist, the film is similarly low-frills.
The main gig that gets their attention is the $20 million Tear of the Sun, locked in a safe under heavy protection and located in — where else? — a casino. But the size of the job gets the attention of the crew’s former partner Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok), who insists on the involvement of his own shady team from China. Naturally, allegiances are frayed, particularly with the arrival of an old hand played by Hong Kong legend Simon Yam, and in ways you may or may not necessarily expect, this mutates from a heist picture into a revenge film.
Structurally, the picture becomes less like “The Italian Job” and more like “Takers,” though it’s refreshing to see this action shot with the beautiful clarity from bigger budgeted Asian filmmakers, where a premium is placed on long, carefully choreographed takes of aggressive action. While the story takes a turn for the dark, Choi Dong-Hoon keeps the action light and exciting, and a finale that involves various all-terrain chases is a delight for how quickly it shifts gears and provides a variety of angles and beats.
The cast also proves to be light on its feet, with the actors given the freedom to play sequences loose and improvisational. Much is done not so much with dialogue as it is with subtle gestures and greetings shared by a crew that, realistically, would have developed a mild shorthand from such a working relationship. A highlight is the interplay between that “mother” and “daughter” from the first scene, with Kim Hae-suk a grumbling alcoholic and a master of disguise, and the stunning Gianna Jun as a goofy, bitchy little princess who has never met a putdown she couldn’t use on everyone. Because it’s a heist film, and these sorts of aesthetics matter, she also looks phenomenal in an evening dress.
It’s with this tone that the film fails to convince as far as half-remembered, and ludicrously heated love affairs. There are so many characters to follow, and the main cast is such a treat, that by the time the peripheral marks are made to look like fools, you’ve begun to question the emotional reality of the film. It’s unfortunate — “The Thieves” otherwise has a crackerjack b-movie pace, and a satisfying multi-tiered ending that wraps up all loose ends with the nefarious twists native to the genre. You may have seen it all before, but there’s a lot of “it all” to parse through in this effervescent heist actioner, a pleasurable romp with a savvy b-movie intelligence. [B]